Pearl's Soul Food Café
The brick floor, wood-paneled walls, fake hanging plants and stained-glass light fixtures hanging over every table make the dining room look like an expanded breakfast nook. Friends and neighbors gather here to linger over lunch and watch sports on the weekends. The easygoing atmosphere and friendly staff make Pearl's our favorite soul food joint. The huge portions of seemingly homemade food make you feel like a guest at Sunday dinner. The ribs are lightly smoked and tender, the yams are steamed and sweet, the black-eyed peas are reduced to a pleasant mush. But the okra is the standout. Tomato and corn add a complimentary backdrop of colors, textures and tastes to the star-shaped slices. It's Pearl's no. 1 seller -- and probably the best okra you'll ever have.

Palm Restaurant
Palm on Westheimer (the cognoscenti don't say "the") has a lot of special memories for Houstonians. When it opened in 1977, it epitomized the "anything goes" spirit of the oil boom. And it's still a boisterous joint with big steaks, big Bordeaux and few inhibitions. The Houston restaurant's walls are covered in caricatures, just like the Manhattan original, and it's fun to see how many faces you know. The New York chop house opened on Second Avenue in 1926. Legend has it that the name was a complete accident. Palm was supposed to be named Parma, but the name was changed by a bureaucrat who couldn't understand the owners' thick Italian accents. Palm's USDA Prime New York strip is perhaps the tastiest steak in town; dark brown, its edges hard and crispy, pink and dry along the sides, turning juicier and redder toward the middle. It's chewier than a filet or rib eye, but the flavor is worth it.

Kubo's Sushi Bar & Grill - CLOSED
Chef Kubo (short for Hajime Kubokawa) made this the best sushi bar in Houston. But Kubo doesn't work here anymore. Luckily, Hori (short for Manubu Horiuchi), the new head chef at Kubo's and Kubokawa's former second-in-command, is extremely talented in his own right. If you have any doubts, sit at the sushi bar and order chirashi, which the menu describes as eight kinds of sashimi over sushi rice. And don't miss the cold draft sake -- they have one of the best selections of premium sake in the city. Kubo's isn't easy to find; it's on the second floor of a giant concrete parking structure in the Village across Morningside from The Ginger Man. Look for a little sign on the ground floor that indicates the way to the stairwell. Kubo's shares the mezzanine with Two Rows and Bayou City Crawfish Café.

Recently reopened under new "old" management, Bangkok Place continues to churn out top notch Thai food. At $6.95, for both the lunch and dinner buffets, it's one of the best values in town. Starters include two different soups (tom yam or sweet-and-sour), pad kee mao or clear noodle salad, fresh and fried spring rolls and that ubiquitous Asian buffet staple, the crab puff. Snow-white jasmine rice and the absolute best fried rice is always available as a base for the main courses, which include such standbys as pad thai with shrimp, basil chicken, pork with beans, and a green curry chicken with coconut, whose smoothness is astonishing. Two other specialties also will surprise you: There's the gaeng galee, a thick omelette chock-full of vegetables and chiles, and then there's the meatballs. Both are a delight. If you're concerned about spiciness, just stay away from anything red.
We know what you meat lovers are thinking: It's not "naturally mine" unless it's made with flesh! Well, you can dine on hormone-free cattle products here, too, but the shining stars on the menu are Naturally Yours's vegan dishes: smothered Stakelets, the juicy Garvey burger (loaded with fresh veggies, soy cheese and soy mayo) and the VLT (veggie strips, lettuce and tomato). Plus, they offer daily off-the-menu vegan soups and entrées. This homey, eight-table soul-food cafe is an outgrowth of the pharmacy next door, where you can buy all manner of supplements and other health goodies.

It's such fun to take people who think of ethnic restaurants as tacky little dumps to the palatial Ba Ky and watch their eyes pop out of their heads. French colonial furniture, columns of giant bamboo stalks and tropical flowers greet you at the front door. Clay pot dishes, Vietnamese fajitas and broiled steak served over salad are all outstanding here. But the dish not to miss is ca chien nuoc cot dira, a whole catfish fried in a light tempura batter served swimming in a rich and spicy coconut red curry.
The Express Grocery and Deli
Jeff Balke
A city work crew, bright vests glowing in the dim early morning, makes its way through a breakfast of eggs and bacon. Along the window-side counter, two young professionals fight to overcome the martinis of the previous night with eye-opening cups of coffee. Just outside, the downtown trolley brakes to a stop, the driver dashing in for an OJ. He'll have to wait his turn behind the police duo and the likely parolee, the yuppies, law students, retirees and the rest of a down-and-out and up-and-coming mix as demographically diverse as there is to be found anywhere in the city. Proprietor Mike Baba, with his trademark grin and good-natured ways, presides over this rich array of customers in this longtime fixture at the southeast end of downtown. The small grocery, grill and deli that he and his family operate is a corner business in the Houston House apartments -- and a cornerstone for a legion of loyal patrons. More than mere foodstuffs are served up in this place. Regulars find themselves developing strange appetites for the other offerings dispensed -- news and gossip, helpful advice, humor from the give-and-take of customers and staff, mutual respect and heartfelt first-name interest in the lives that intersect here, however briefly. A dozen or so blocks north, downtown is busy redeveloping with boutique cafes and watering holes intent on instant status as the "in" place -- and intimate place -- to be. But for now, they can only hope to eventually evolve into the rich, diverse texture and honest atmosphere that the Baba family has cultivated so naturally.

Baby Barnaby's Cafe
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
Celebrating its tenth year this December, Barnaby's is a landmark in the Montrose. Named in memory of principal owner Jeffrey Gale's beloved sheepdog, the restaurant is adorned with cute images of the pooch. And the menu, consisting primarily of good ol' fashioned comfort food, reflects the people of the neighborhood itself: simple with an eccentric flair. Normally we wouldn't think of ordering meat loaf at a restaurant, but here the dish is so good (especially with the mashed potatoes) that it's difficult to order anything else. The blue cheese and bacon burger is another taste bud tingler. Veggie? Wonderful meatless alternatives pepper the Barnaby's selection, like the Pacific Rim stir-fry and a mouth-watering spinach and cheese lasagna. Chase them all down with the delightfully refreshing lemonade, not too tart, not too sweet. One meat lover likes to share a rack of tender smoked ribs and the excellent, crispy shoestring fries as an appetizer. That might sound insane, but everything is so well crafted, it's almost a shame to leave the place having tasted only one entrée. The top-notch nibbles are sure to make the dear doggy proud.

Auntie Pasto's
Even foodies will agree that sometimes comfort means more than cuisine, though the elegantly casual Auntie Pasto's offers a solid mix of both. It's not surprising that pasta reigns supreme here, with the 22 menu offerings ranging from black bean pasta (a Southwestern mix of cilantro, peppers, black beans, goat cheese and chicken over fettuccini) to crawfish ravioli. Feeling creative? Regulars and first-timers can improvise dishes off the no-nonsense menu. Appetizers like the tomato mozzarella are simple and pleasing. Thin-crust pizzas, namely the roasted garlic chicken and the four-cheese, feature sweet, buttery, fire-roasted crusts. And the sinful To Die For dessert also warrants a trip. This decadent, fruit-laden cousin of tiramisu features a freshly baked almond torte that houses berries, delicately sweet mascarpone and ladyfingers soaked in rum, peach schnapps, orange juice and Sprite. Flirting with death never tasted so good.

We know what you're thinking. You saw "Galleria" and imagined meals at Morton's Steakhouse, or Cafe Annie or any number of high-dollar restaurants. That's why Chacho's is a natural choice. Located just down the street from the Galleria in a faux adobe building with bright pastel colors, Chacho's offers first-rate Tex-Mex made with fresh ingredients for paltry sums. As a result, Chacho's gives the House of Pies a run for its money as the best post-2 a.m. eatery for all your sobering-up needs. But it would be folly to arrive after last call. Their margaritas are terrific.

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